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February 28, 2007

The Pleasures of Training

This is an article I've been trying to write for a good six months, but it's always eluded me, for reasons I'll lay out presently.

The spark of this post was seeing Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day at GDC last year¹, and then purchasing it a few weeks later. I played it for a solid week, getting in my half hour or so a day, testing my brain age on occasion, and trying out new tests as they came on line.

I thought a lot about the experience in terms of training -- as a simulation of training, and comparing it with training I had done in the past. At around that time, I started running again², and having run under a coach back in high school cross country and track, I spent a lot of time comparing and contrasting the two experiences.

The one overriding thought I had was that training in running typically has a goal or a series of goals. In the case of cross country, for example, improving your performance at each meet or contributing to the team's overall score, with an end goal of participating in regional or state level competition at the end of the season. So, having started running again, I ultimately latched onto a long-term goal -- running a half-marathon with my brother-in-law, which was several months off. In the meantime, I'd table my thoughts about Brain Age and come back to them in September.

I thought a lot about the goals, though. Brain Age doesn't really have an explicit goal. Implicitly, however, the sense of achievement you get is from acknowlegement of progress by the polygonal head of Dr. Kawashima, whose research into "brain age" in Japan is what motivated the game. He seems genuinely excited by your progress, with hearty chortles and double- and triple-takes, and he commiserates with you when you have an off day at a particular activity. He's such a simple character -- probably a few dozen polygons at most, from my recollection -- but he manages to convey just the right amount of emotion. He even manages to give you unexpected compliments: there are times in the game when you'll be asked to try to draw something, such as a rhinoceros or a particular famous landmark, and your image will be compared against a professional illustration and salient features pointed out ("Note the large horn!"). One day, I was quite surprised to have Dr. Kawashima ask me to draw myself -- and then afterwards, having nothing to compare it against, he said, "Emphasize the good loooks!" This kind of feedback from an abstract character really elevated the experience from something I would have done a few times to something I did for a solid month or so; it should also be noted that my view of Dr. Kawashima, someone who I know very little about but who nonetheless manages to motivate me, almost exactly replicated the experience I had had of my coaches in the past.

The addition of new training techniques over time also reminded me of past training in running. At the beginning of the season, you'll start out simply by jogging and running each day, usually starting out with a little stretching³. Soon, though, you'll add a variety of training methods to your arsenal -- you'll add fart lek, interval training, hill training, Indian running, and others. Over time you'll intensify these -- tougher hills4, longer distances in your intervals with shorter cool downs. This is all exactly analogous to the training approaches provided in Brain Age.

The real difference, I guess, was that Brain Age lacked the specific orientation towards peak performance that would often accompany my high school running -- emphasizing certain aspects of your training to cause your body to peak during the crucial last few weeks of the season, when all the big meets (regional and state contests) would occur. Brain Age doesn't provide anything like this, as far as I can tell -- Dr. Kawashima never says, "Well, we're heading into a few weeks of intense brain training to help you lower your brain age. Get ready for a workout!" So there are some differences, too.

Unfortunately, towards the end of August, I ceased to be able to run, and had to abandon my half-marathon. I have an old knee injury (high school indoor track) and some trail-running in California had caused a recurrence; I was out for a ten mile run just a few weeks shy of the half marathon when I had to abandon running altogether due to the pain5. And with it, I abandoned this article; and around that time the blog stopped too.

But around the time I started having the knee pain, I got back into training of a different kind. For about a year now, my sons have been training in karate a couple of nights a week. In the late spring, they started pestering me to join them; it was a few months before I did, joining them in the dojo about a month after my knee failed me. Here was another sort of training, less specific in terms of performance -- no direct comparison of your performance versus another student's, with the exception of sparring -- but still with a lot of similarities. Karate training doesn't really have goals; attaining belt ranks is not really the focus of the training, though it is a useful way to track when you're able to take on more (to add more forms to your repertoire, for example, or to judge your relative strengths in sparring). The idea of training is to improve your karate, to improve your skills, moving them constantly towards a perfection you will never reach.

In January, I had my first belt test, and tested well, attaining my yellow belt. And at that point, I decided it was time to increase my training; prior to that, I had almost entirely been training with the childrens' classes, since that was when my sons would train. But after my first test, I was ready to start training more seriously, to push myself harder and further. Over the last few weeks, despite some pretty severe bruising (the adult classes introduced me to contact training, which involves tagging punches and kicks, and let me tell you those black belts can hit pretty damned hard!), I've thrown myself into the training, spending many more hours in the dojo in a given week. I guess that refocusing, and that belt test, were what got me thinking about Brain Age again, and the pleasures of training.

Over the last several months I've gotten out of the habit of blogging, of writing these articles about games and other media (and now, I guess, other experiences). But lately I've been missing it, and I'll make an effort to get back in the habit. It's like a different sort of training -- keeping your mind sharp by thinking about the implications of something you've been reading, or playing, or watching, turning it over in your mind and applying it to games.

Hope to see you in this space again soon, and thanks for waiting.

¹ I had the opportunity to get a free copy at GDC, which was a good move by Iwata, giving away a thousand or so copies for good word of mouth. However, I held off, because Will Wright's Spore keynote followed, and I really didn't want to wait in that line a second time. (back)

² This was the result of a competition with my father -- a "biggest loser" style of weight loss competition. Although there was a bottle of scotch on the line, the real competition was for bragging rights; it has been nice to have had a good six months of trash talking my father since I won, and now I'm doing that online to my, ahem, vast readership. :) (back)

³ Come to think of it, the little illustration exercises in Brain Age generally preceded daily training or brain age testing, which sort of made it a good form of stretching. (back)
4 For me, hill training will always mean what we on the cross country team called "ass break hill". I have no idea what the real name of the hill was, but on relatively flat Cape Cod, it was a doozy. (back)

5 This made me very aware of the physical analog to Brain Age: body age. Nothing makes you so acutely aware of your aging body than having to limp several miles back home due to joint pain. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 12:31 PM | Comments (5)